BERKELEY -- There’s nothing better to cure a hangover than a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you.
After dropping the finale of a nine-game road trip on a walk-off single by Rice on Monday, California came back home and tallied a last-at-bat win of its own, with a sacrifice fly to left by second baseman Brenden Farney to score Jacob Wark capping off a 5-4, 10-inning for the Bears, who took the series opener against Fresno State.
“Good things always happen at Evans,” Farney said. “Always.”
The victory was the fourth straight walk-off win for Cal at home, and comes on the heels of a 2-7 road trip, where the Bears (6-7) played seven games against ranked teams.
“We’re a huge work-in-progress, as far as getting kids acclimated to the game of baseball at this level,” said a weary head coach David Esquer, who saw his team strand nine runners. “It’s going to be slow. I’m impatient. I want it to hurry, but that’s just the fact.”
The Bulldogs (3-8) were coming off of a series win against USC last weekend, and started William Munro, a sophomore righty with a reputation for pounding the strike zone.
Munroe held Cal hitless for 4.2 innings, humming through the first three innings on just 33 pitches, with two strikeouts and one walk.
As Munro skated, lefty starter Justin Jones struggled. Over the first three innings, Jones threw 47 pitches, surrendering three singles and a walk, and falling behind, 1-0. Through the first two frames, Jones used his trademark curve just twice.
In the top of the fourth, Bulldogs leadoff man Brody Russell lined the second pitch he saw right off of Jones’s backside, which Jones dutifully picked up and tossed to first for the out. After allowing the next two runners to reach, Jones used his deuce to strike out hot-hitting first baseman Trent Garrison swinging, and then got senior catcher Austin Wynns to bounce out to short on the deuce to get out of the jam.
“I just started being myself,” Jones said. “For too long, I’ve tried to create something. It’s like the Pete Townshend song, The Secret. You search for 50 million fables, and I felt like I was doing that today. I was just myself. The thought going in was just, ‘Be yourself, don’t let anyone get in your way and motivate your team,’ and it worked.”
Jones tended to leave his fastball up at times, but otherwise mixed in his power curve and his big bender along with a change as the game wore on.
“It felt good. Everything felt good, really,” Jones said. “The curveball, I felt I had it. The two strikeouts, specifically, when I struck them out looking, I felt those were my best ones. They just froze. They thought it was an up-and-away fastball, right on the outside corner, and it got them out.”
After getting Fresno State in order in the top of the fifth, Jones finally got some help from his offense. The Bears began to work the count and force Munro to make more and more pitches. The sophomore finished the day with six walks.
“We kind of slept-walked through the first four or five innings,” Esquer said. “It took a little while. Sometimes -- and you don’t like it -- you play in dreary and cool conditions, and it’s not that get-excited type of weather, but the game’s going to be the same. Our guys caught themselves pretty well. They caught that they weren’t playing very well, and didn’t give up on the game.”
First baseman Michael Theofanopoulos led off the bottom of the fifth with a walk, and moved to third on a sacrifice by Farney and a groundout to second by Brian Celsi. Munro then issued his fourth walk of the day to freshman Devin Pearson, bringing pesky Mike Reuvekamp to the dish.
Reuvekamp shot a cutter up in the zone through the left side to tie the game at 1-1.
“Our team captain Andrew Knapp got us going in the fourth inning, brought us all together, said we needed to wake up, and that’s when we started to figure it out,” Farney said.
Jones worked quickly in the top of the sixth, getting Wynns out on two pitches and inducing what should have been a groundout from left fielder Taylor Ward to the left side, but third baseman Chris Paul cut in front of Reuvekamp at short, and bobbled the exchange, then threw low to first, allowing Ward to reach.
Sophomore Taylor Tempel smoked the second pitch he saw from Jones to deep right, but Wark -- who’s pulled double duty this spring, practicing for the Cal football team and starting in right for the baseball team -- made a clutch over-the-shoulder grab in mid-gallop for the second out.
Freshman Kevin Viers then came up with a groundball single through the right side to pull the Bulldogs ahead, 2-1.
Fresno State jumped on Jones for two runs in the top of the seventh to extend the lead to 4-1, as Jones labored, throwing 18 pitches, and allowing two doubles. In his longest outing of the year – and the longest outing by any Cal starter -- Jones allowed four runs (three earned) on seven hits and three walks with five strikeouts in 7.0 innings.
“OK, OK, not Friday-night stuff, still, but the results were OK,” Esquer said. “Seven innings of three. Still, in any baseball world, that’s a 4.00 ERA, and that’s not necessarily where you want to be. Encouraging. We’ve got to make some decisions about whether he’s our best Friday-night option.”
Following the script they’d written over the first three home games of the season -- when the Bears tallied three straight walk-off wins against Michigan -- Cal began to inch back.
“Our guys don’t surrender,” Esquer said. “They put in a lot of hard work, and they’re not going to surrender easily, and I really think it’s because of the hard work they put in that they’re not just willing to take an ass-whipping or take a loss easily. They’re just not going to do it. I think they realize that, if they put in the time and effort, they’re going to take it to the end.”
With Munro out of the game, Celsi led off the bottom of the seventh against reigning Mountain West Pitcher of the Week Derek Velasquez with a line-drive single over shortstop.
With two outs, designated hitter Devon Rodriguez crushed the first pitch he saw from Velasquez through the right side. Russell mis-played the ball in right, allowing the speedy Celsi to take third.
With runners at the corners, preseason All-American catcher Knapp sent the first pitch he saw from Velasquez arcing towards the wall in left-center. Ward reached up to try and make a circus catch, but the ball bounced off the tip of his glove. Celsi scored easily on the drive, as center fielder Aaron Judge’s throw to short was bobbled by strong-armed Chris Mariscal. Waved around by third base coach Tony Arnerich, Rodriguez chugged towards home.
“I threw the monkey off my back,” smiled Rodriguez, who is known slightly less for his speed than he is his bat.
The junior slugger made it home without a throw, cutting the lead to one.
“I thought, ‘I hope I’m safe,’” Rodriguez laughed. “Every time I’ve had to go first-to-third, it feels like a mile, but by the time I’m rounding third, I’m just like, ‘I hope I’m going to be safe. I hope they make a bad throw or something.’”
Jones then gave way to junior sidearmer Trevor Hildenberger, who went on to turn in a sparkling relief performance, holding Fresno State scoreless over 3.0 innings, allowing one hit and two walks with two strikeouts.
“I’ll tell you what: Trevor’s been getting better and better every time out,” Esquer said. “He’s better at being able to manipulate the game a little bit, make things happen versus throw the pitch and hope that it’s the right one and it works at the right spot. I think he’s putting a little intent and taking a little something off of it and a little over here and a little over there, now, to where he’s actually playing the game a little bit. I think he’s doing some stuff on-purpose, where, before, I thought he was just throwing his pitch and hoping something would work.”
With rally caps firmly in place, the Bears got another lucky break in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Reuvekamp Tomahawked the second pitch he saw from reliever Jordan Brink through the left side. Rodriguez then drove the third pitch he saw to left center, where Ward again tried to make a highlight-reel grab. But, as Ward dove, the ball glanced off his glove, putting runners at the corners for Knapp.
The junior backstop tattooed a 1-1 offering to center for a sacrifice fly, tying the game at 4-4.
With still a little bit of magic on its side, Cal mounted a wild effort in the bottom of the 10th, with Wark taking a pitch to the hip to lead off.
Sophomore third baseman Paul -- sitting on an 0-for-5 day at the dish – sent a bunt right at the charging Garrison, who wheeled and threw to second to try and erase Wark. The ball skipped to the left side of the bag, putting two on with no outs.
Esquer then elected to send struggling freshman Mitchell Kranson to the plate in place of John Soteropulos, who took over for Theofanopoulos at first in the top of the ninth. Kranson -- who came into the game on a 5-for-30 slide -- stung a perfect bunt up the third base line, which 6-foot-5 righty reliever Blake Quinn struggled to field, loading the bases for Farney.
“That was an excellent bunt,” Esquer said. “Hats off to him, that he has a reputation of being a guy who’s one of the best bunters on the team, and that’s a big deal.”
With the Bulldogs electing to go with five infielders, Farney sent the third pitch he saw to Judge in shallow left center.
“I stepped out of the box, I looked at who I had at third, and Jacob Wark plays Division I football, so he’s fast,” Farney said. “I was like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to get comfortable with myself, if I see anything up,’ and I got that curveball up, and whether it was a shallow fly ball or a deep fly ball, I had faith that he was going to score.”
The throw took Wynns up the first base line as the 6-foot-5 Wark charged plateward with the winning run on his back.
“He’s really fast,” Farney said of Wark, who made two big over-the-shoulder grabs in right that would make Sonny Dykes proud. “People don’t give him enough credit.”